Reimagining Livelihoods to ‘decoronize’ India - Thought Starters for the Informal Sector

“The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to push around 400 million informal sector workers in India deeper into poverty, with the lockdown and other containment measures affecting jobs and earnings” – International Labour Organisation (ILO) Report.

“India’s urban unemployment rate soars to 30.9% even as overall rate rises to 23.4%, indicating COVID-19’s impact on the economy” – Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) Report.

The impact on livelihoods of the domestic worker who has been asked not to report to their employer’s home; the street vendor who has had to close down his stall to comply with social distancing norms; the beautician whose clients are going to be wary to step in for treatments involving human touch; the server waiting for his restaurant to be re-opened to business and then experiencing a drop in footfalls as people begin to opt for either dining at their homes or ordering in; the cab driver waiting for his daily customers who do not hop in as they are not allowed on the roads or have been asked to work from home; the construction worker who has been laid off due to stalled projects; and for many more such role holders who serve our cities and have fuelled their growth by providing us their services – for all those, this unexpected pandemic called COVID – 19 is not only about their health, it is about their livelihoods and it is about their survival!!

It is a pressing need for us to shake ourselves out of the ‘economic and thought paralysis’ induced by the lock down and put together a roadmap for how jobs and livelihoods will shape up, especially for the large vulnerable informal sector which represents 81% of India’s employed workforce (“Men & Women in the Informal Economy: A statistical picture” – ILO Report). This number is estimated to be well over 90% considering the increase in informal workers within the organized sector (as contractual or casual labourers). 

It is beyond doubt that this population of migrant, agricultural and non-agricultural workers are the most affected with lockdown related interventions. It has caused them dislodgement, occupational displacement and most importantly, an acute economic shock. As this pool of informal workers typically rely on daily earnings, their immediate and future livelihoods are under immense stress.

The challenges are manifold

  • It is for the first time in this modern era that industries have had to shut down, people are confined within the four walls of their homes and social distancing has been redefined.
  • The demand patterns among consumers on discretionary spends may see a reduction or there may be a random shift in the choices they make. 
  • This pandemic has also led to a reverse migration from metros and cities to the small towns and villages. It is likely that a proportion of those who have moved back to their roots, may decide to stay there, either due to social pressures from their families or due to the inability of the urban ecosystem to absorb them back.

It appears that ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ will have a whole new meaning for our generation and the future generations – ‘BC’ being ‘Before COVID-19’ and ‘AD’ being ‘After Disruption’.

“In the post COVID-19 India, we need to gear up to a restructured economy and align ourselves on how we can redefine livelihoods of the vulnerable informal sector. This means re-looking at the traditional approach to job roles and learning on-ground implementation; introduction of new skills and capabilities, coupled with a mix of unlearning, relearning and cross learning. Thus, reimagining livelihoods, mapping them onto the skills’ inventory and creating enablers for a robust new learning structure becomes imperative.

We need to put together a comprehensive roadmap for jobs and livelihoods – both with an immediate short-term focus while our economy limps back to normalcy post and also with a long-term purview. The impact of the lockdown is affecting different sectors and different sets of workers differently and hence the methods to address their livelihood related challenges must also be customized. This becomes true both at an individual level and at a unit level. For a country anchored in small towns and villages where 80% of the 6 Lac villages have a population up to 2000 people (Census of India: 2011), perhaps it is time for us to redefine an economic unit. This pandemic may indeed have a silver lining – an opportunity of the revival of the local economy, strengthening it and leveraging the interdependence between the cities and villages!

It is perhaps time that Gandhiji’s vision of a self-sufficient rural economy is applied at scale – with the aim of not only reducing inequity and poverty but creating a system to absorb the influx of this returning migrant population so as to insulate rural India from an additional spike in unemployment. 

As we come out of Lockdown, human to human interactions itself might go through a transformation where people will think twice before inviting their own friends and relatives over or pause before shaking hands when they meet and greet their colleagues. While it is difficult to predict if we will recover from this social mistrust or will it become the new norm, it is equally difficult to predict the best case and worst-case scenarios of how lives and livelihoods will get impacted. Hence, if there was ever a right time to unlearn our traditional approach in enabling livelihoods, identify models and best practices worth replicating, and apply them to reduce inequities, unemployment and address the new reverse migration that has begun – not just for surviving the COVID-19 induced crisis but to create a resilient economy and sustainable livelihoods – that time is now.

As our contribution in making this happen, we are tapping on our combined understanding of the Livelihoods’ ecosystem with Informal Sector at its core. Hence, we announce the launch of our series - ‘Reimagining Livelihoods to ‘DeCoronize’ India – Thought Starters for the Informal Sector’. 

Through this series, we will look at Key Job Roles contributing to majority of the non-farm-based livelihoods in the informal sector in the top ten sectors that employ them- 1. Construction   2. Auto   3. Retail    4. Delivery   5. BFSI   6. Beauty & Wellness   7. Health  8. IT & ITES   9. Hospitality  10. Travel & Tourism.

We are attempting to assess how these job roles will undergo a shift; map the skills inventory vis- a- vis the reimagined job roles; and their application in urban and/or rural scenarios. We hope this will equip individuals in these job roles to be better prepared. We also seek participation of our colleagues in the states, corporates, civil society organizations and urban communities to share their inputs in helping us co-create a framework of these reimagined livelihoods. Let us together play an integral role in supporting this transition to ‘deCoronizing’ India by enabling livelihoods.